The Future of Marijuana Legalization Efforts

I suspect that marijuana will be a pretty major issue in the 2016 campaign.  Looking at this map, it is clear that the legalization movement is only now gathering steam.  Three liberal states have already legalized recreational use, with several blue (and not-so-blue!) states planning legalization referendums for 2016 or the next few years after.  Marijuana might be fully legalized under state law along the entire West Coast and all of New England by 2020.

Predictions from ArcView Market Research

It will be a salient 2016 election issue because it will have become a massively salient policy issue.  With the lack of a Presidential election in 2014, and the Obama administration effectively downplaying the question, it wasn’t really on the agenda.  But whoever wins in 2016 will have a massive mess on their hands in 2017, particularly if California votes for legalization.  The status quo, of a gray market in Colorado and Washington with no federal recognition of the growing industry, is unsustainable and cannot be sustained.  It certainly cannot be extended from those states to the much larger populations of California and the Eastern Seaboard.  The next administration simply will be forced to make a decision about whether to crack down on it or tolerate it to a much greater degree than Obama has (e.g., allowing pot retailers to file taxes and access banks).

It is hard to know what this debate will look like, simply because it is difficult to gauge how public opinion will look in two years time.  If opinion continues to consolidate in favor of legalization, the tenor of the debate is likely to be much different than if it stagnates or reverses.  But here’s my expectation: opinion will continue to move in favor of legalization.  It will be a wedge issue in the Democratic primary – a political entrepreneur will seize on it and attempt to force policy concessions on the issue from Hillary Clinton.  In the general, she will attempt to downplay the issue and avoid presenting a definite policy, as opposed to a Republican candidate who will be very very anti-marijuana and will push the issue hard.  If marijuana legalization does not increase much in popularity by 2016, both candidates will be attempting to seize the anti-marijuana high ground even though roughly half the population favors legalization.  That half will disproportionately vote for Clinton anyway, and for legalization if they have the opportunity.

A Republican win would mean a high-intensity, high-profile crackdown and basically going to war on state governments who tolerate marijuana.  If Clinton wins, she will attempt to delay action as long as possible but will eventually opt for a crackdown.  In short: marijuana activists should be cheered that their legalization campaigns are making so much progress…but shouldn’t count their chickens just yet.  Passing these laws are just the opening shot of a campaign that will take a long, long time before either side can claim victory.

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